Analysis: Vote highlights shift in power to Eastern European Jews

European Jewish life may have changed dramatically on Tuesday.

moshe kantor 298 88 (photo credit: Beit Hanassi)
moshe kantor 298 88
(photo credit: Beit Hanassi)
Jewish organization elections are often more important to the politicians in the institutions involved than to the "Jew in the pew" they ostensibly represent. Nevertheless, European Jewish life may have changed dramatically on Tuesday, and its new direction raises serious questions about how the community will face the times ahead. For the past few weeks, officials in the Foreign Ministry, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Jewish Agency quietly nursed the hope that incumbent EJC President Pierre Besnainou, a French Jew and an avid supporter of aliya, would win reelection. They spoke darkly of new EJC President-elect Moshe Kantor's close ties to the Kremlin and the worry that Besnainou's lobbying successes in EU institutions would be nullified by the victory of a "non-European." In response, Kantor's supporters said that Besnainou's left-wing leanings - "which are more dangerous for Israel in the long term," according to one - were the real reason for the complaints. As Besnainou readily states, he is a long-time admirer of President-elect Shimon Peres. It is axiomatic that preelection politicking must be taken with a grain of salt. But without demonizing either candidate, the choice by the representatives from 40 European Jewish communities of a Russian billionaire (albeit one who holds Swiss and Israeli citizenship) with close ties to the Russian government reflects a rise in the stature of East European Jewry. The election result is an indication that, for the first time since World War I, the center of power in Jewish Europe is moving eastward. Their billionaires and sheer numbers have lent them a voice and a relevance that cannot be ignored. Already Kantor's European Jewish Fund, which he established with a handful of other wealthy Ukrainian and Russian Jews, is set to free European Jewish institutions of their dependence on American donors and institutions. Are the post-Soviet Jewish communities of Eastern Europe coming of age? Will this newfound influence give expression to the nearly half of Europe's Jews who live in the formerly Communist lands and are underrepresented in most of the continent's Jewish institutions. The victory of a Russian has put a spotlight on the fact that European Jewish organized life does not correspond to the broader political realities of the continent. The geographic definition of "European Jew" currently covers a larger area than that of "European." How will the growing unity of the EU's Jewish communities be affected by this reality? Will Jews living (and voting) across the EU-Russian political divide - now linked institutionally - be able to bridge the rift to serve the interests of Jewish communities on both sides of this geopolitical frontier? Kantor has already said he will appoint a vice president of EU affairs, but can the EJC remain as strong an advocate for Western European Jewish concerns as it was before?